Do students care about our subjects or about us?

Not that there has to be a total dichotomy, but overall, do our students care about our subjects or about us? This idea recently had me asking lots of questions, to which I don't have many answers.

 It certainly makes us teachers happy to have devoted, loyal fans as students, and if we can connect to the people in our classes, it seems much more rewarding and meaningful to us. But do we have the interest, ability, or liberty to consider why the students are doing what they're doing?

Traditionally, good teachers say that the way to get kids engaged is to build the relationship between student and teacher. One particularly thorny effect of this, though, is that the student can come to do what the teacher asks because the student cares about impressing the teacher, not letting the teacher down, making the teacher happy, etc. Once students care about us, or feel that we care about them, it's much easier to get them to do what we want them to do. It seems to me that this might be quite unhealthy, manipulative, and even exploitative of a student's natural desire to not upset a person they care about. There be dragons here for sure!

Some progressive educators, while not discounting the need for a strong teacher-student relationship, talk about engaging the student with the content to be learned itself by making it relevant to the student's lives, harnessing the student's intrinsic motivations, such as the three aspects of Daniel Pink's Drive: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. 

The ramifications of the former approach could be staggering: what if the steady growth in the importance of end results (standardized tests, college placement, class rankings, GPAs, etc.) is the product of generations of students growing up having learned to value the system that such an authority-pleasing approach builds as what good education is? 

We talk about students losing their natural love of learning somewhere along the way between elementary and high school, that their main motivation in school sometimes shifts to their only wanting to know what'll be on the test, to be worried about grades and end products, and so on. What if this shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is just the end product itself of a student's long-term focus on authority-pleasing rather than their own curiosity, wonder, and engagement with their world?

How might we help our students focus on their inherent drive to learn about things that interest them, and reduce our association with their end products? How might we enable students to be more concerned with letting themselves down - or, more abstractly, the intellectual endeavor itself down - than letting their teachers (or parents) down? 

As students age into their high school years, their relationship to authority drastically changes as they are driven biologically and culturally to identify and enforce their own identities. This often manifests as a reduction in their interest in the established authorities in their life, sometimes even to fairly direct rejection of those authorities. This is seen as an important and natural part of human development, for the most part. But what happens to a developing student who has no knowledge of or experience with their own curiosities, their own passions, and is only left with the void of authorities they used to want to please? What are they left with that can help them grow and adapt as they navigate the world beyond their schooling?